NAPA, Calif. (KTVU - Hot air balloon rides are popular in Napa Valley for their sweeping vineyards even though hot air balloon pilots are subject to some, but not all regulations as airline pilots, according to NTSB officials.
A recent crash of a hot air balloon in central Texas killed 16 people, including a pilot that NTSB officials said had a history of alcohol related offenses. It is unknown if that played a factor in the crash.
Robert Sumwalt with the NTSB said the fact that the pilot would not have been required to report those incidents exposes a disparity in FAA requirements for balloon pilots and other commercial pilots. Airline pilots are required to report such offenses when applying for a license.
Sumwalt says it appears Nichols was trying to land the balloon, based on the positioning of a vent and its attached cables. It appears the balloon may have dragged along power lines for about 30 feet.
Dean Carlton, President of the Balloon Federation of America, said balloon crashes are extremely rare and said the pilot involved in the Texas crash was not a member of the BFA.
“The biggest question for all of us is we need to know what happened because if we can find out what happened maybe there is one thing we can do different in our operations that will make our next flight safer,” Carlton said. “Ballooning is an intrinsically safe sport. Driving your car on the highway is probably scarier than flying in a balloon.”
The NTSB urged the FAA to strengthen its regulations of balloon operators in 2014, but no action was taken. Carlton defended the FAA and said the recommendations, which included creating a list of commercial users, would have created a false sense of comfort and not necessarily made pilots any safer.
In May, 16 people had to be rescued near the Napa River after strong winds pushed their balloon off course and last month a hot air balloon collapsed on a light pole in Vacaville.
Carlton said the FAA requires every balloon pilot to have a flight review every two years by a certified instructor and to stay current on their take-off and landing procedures.
“The guys that do this for a living, they want to bring everyone home every time,” Carlton said. “It’s a wonderful experience, and we want to make sure people have the opportunity to do that.”